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Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Fleeing the cage of words

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, culture, education, journalism, life, work on February 2, 2014 at 4:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever just stopped talking?

Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.

But decided, for a while, not to speak at all.

I did so in the summer of 2011, a few months before I married Jose, a man who is devoutly Buddhist and who decided, as a birthday gift, to whisk me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat. (Yes, really.)

The only time speech was allowed was in our teaching sessions, or private meetings with the staff, to ask questions.

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Here’s my Marie Claire story about how it changed my life, and our relationship, and here’s one of my five blog posts, all from July 2011, about how great it felt to be quiet for a while.

We communicated mostly through Post-It notes and gestures, occasionally whispering in our room.

For the first few days, it felt like an impossible burden and every morning’s meditation revealed another empty chair or cushion left by those who had decided to flee.

Then it felt massively liberating.

To not be social.

To not make chit-chat.

To not fill the air with chatter so as to sound witty and smart and cool and employable and likeable.

To just…be silent.

To just…be.

When we returned to the noise and clamor of “normal”life — the blaring TVs in every bar, the ping of someone’s phone or an elevator or a doorbell, the honking of cars, the yammer of people shouting into their cellphones — we were shell-shocked by it all.

I miss that silence, and I really miss the powerful experience of community we had there, with 75 people of all ages from all over the world who had chosen to eschew words for a week.

In December, I started a weekly class in choreography, modern dance, a new adventure for me. There’s only one other student, a woman 13 years my junior. In a small studio, we spend 90 minutes moving, writing about movement and creating “insta-dances” which we perform and listen to feedback about.

It’s all a bit terrifying for someone whose audience — here and in my paid writing work — typically remains safely distant, invisible and mostly ignores what I produce. To look someone in the eye, and to see yourself in the mirror, and to express oneself without words, using only corporeal language are all deeply disorienting.

Not a bad thing. But a very new thing.

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company "Flatback a...

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company “Flatback and cry e.V.” Produktion: “patchwork on stage”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your fingers, wrists, toes, elbows…all have something to say, I’ve discovered. The subtlety of a flick, a wiggle, a pause, a hop. It’s a wholly new way to express ideas and emotions without the tedium of diction.

It’s another way to tell a story, wordlessly. I’ve been surprised and grateful that the other dancer — who is thin, lithe and performs a lot — calls me graceful and expressive. I didn’t expect that at all. As someone whose body is aging and needs to shed 30+ pounds, I usually just see it as a tiresome battleground, not a source of pride and pleasure, sorry to say.

It’s also a little terrifying to have all that freedom, as writing journalism always means writing to a specific length, style and audience, like a tailor making a gray wool pinstriped suit in a 42tall. It’s always something made-to-order, rarely a pure expression of my own ideas and creativity.

It’s interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.

Shhhhhhhh!

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, nature, travel, urban life on November 24, 2012 at 12:49 am
Green silence / Silencio verde

Green silence / Silencio verde (Photo credit: victor_nuno)

Is this a noise you make?

Is this a sound — an imprecation, really — you hear?

Or ignore?

Here’s a fervent plea for public silence:

EVER since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car. The Quiet Car, in case you don’t know, is usually the first car in Amtrak’s coach section, right behind business class. Loud talking is forbidden there — any conversations are to be conducted in whispers. Cellphones off; music and movies on headphones only. There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon. The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol. Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car’s rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.

Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.

“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”

“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”

“Yes,” said the woman behind them.

My husband won’t go to the movies anymore, at least not in the evening, and the reason is twofold — other people attending are so rude and noisy, and I spend too much time hissing at them or saying, loudly, “Shut up!”

Which is, yes, very rude of me.

I admit it, I lost it last week.

I was sitting, reading a book and savoring a coffee, enjoying the luxury of leisure in Manhattan before meeting a friend for dinner. A woman right beside me — with lots of room to sit further away — shouted into her cellphone in Portuguese.

“Can you please lower your voice!?” I finally asked, fearing a nasty fight. To my surprise, she moved immediately and came back to apologize, explaining she’d been speaking to her son, via Skype, in Brazil.

Silence is healing, soothing, calming. It lowers our heart rate and speed of respiration. It allows us to focus on our other senses. It offers us a deep, refreshed sleep. It allows us to focus and concentrate our attention, whether on work, reading or a spectacular work of art in a museum or gallery.

In this post, from July 2011, you’ll read all the sounds I became newly aware of on an eight-day silent retreat Jose and I took. I posted several short essays that week, as peeling away the cocoon of noise/music/conversation/traffic laid bare a fresh set of insights and appreciations that were simply unattainable within the noisy distractions of everyday life.

Here’s the essay I wrote about it for Marie Claire magazine — and what I learned about love expressed through action, not mere words.

When Jose and I re-emerged, reluctantly and nervously, into “real life” I immediately noticed how edgy and anxious noise renders me. I eat more, more often and more quickly. My mood alters, and rarely for the better.

I treasure silence, an increasingly rare commodity.

Do you savor silence?

Where, in your daily life, do you find or create it?

“I failed!” How Google teaches its staffers to breathe deep — and cope

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, Technology, work on April 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm
This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Go...

This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Google plex in the silicon valley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a story you won’t read anywhere else in the world — my exclusive interview with Chade-Meng Tan, employee number 107 at Google, whose new book “Search Inside Yourself”  was released this week. The story is in Sunday’s New York Times, on the front page of the business section. It’s now up on their website.

It’s about a super-popular course there, which Meng created and has taught since 2005, in mindfulness and meditation. In an environment that drives employees hard to achieve all the time, all the while remaining “Googly” — friendly and collegial — anything to help control stress, frustration and emotion is a helpful tool.

I sat in on one of the SIY classes and learned a lot about myself!

Here’s an excerpt:

One exercise asks everyone to name, and share with a partner, three core values. “It centers you,” one man says afterward. “You can go through life forgetting what they are.”

There’s lots of easy laughter. People prop up their feet on the backs of seats and lean in to whisper to their partners — people from a variety of departments they otherwise might have never met. (Students are asked to pair up with a buddy for the duration of the course.)

In one seven-minute exercise, participants are asked to write, nonstop, how they envision their lives in five years. Mr. Tan ends it by tapping a Tibetan brass singing bowl.

They discuss what it means to succeed, and to fail. “Success and failure are emotional and physiological experiences,” Mr. Tan says. “We need to deal with them in a way that is present and calm.”

Then Mr. Lesser asks the entire room to shout in unison: “I failed!”

“We need to see failure in a kind, gentle and generous way,” he says. “Let’s see if we can explore these emotions without grasping.”

Talking about failure?

Sharing feelings?

Sitting quietly for long, unproductive minutes?

At Google?

I snagged this story when I met a woman who had worked on the class with Meng and who told me about him. Immediately intrigued, I stayed in touch with her and discovered he was going to publish this book. In December 2011 I negotiated an exclusive with his publisher.

I flew from my home in New York to Mountain View, where all the tech firms are based, including Google — about an hour from San Francisco. I spent two days on campus in the Googleplex, which offered me an intimate glimpse into a company most of us know primarily as a verb, whose logo appears on our computer screens worldwide.

The campus is almost unimaginably lush, with every conceivable amenity. There are primary-colored bicycles available and at the entrance to each building are bike helmets hanging on the wall. There are umbrellas for those who prefer to walk. There are 30 cafes offering free food. Heated toilet seats. Apiaries. Swimming pool. Volleyball court. Ping pong tables.

The basic idea, as those of you who follow tech firms know, is to keep all those bright ambitious employees working without distraction — so there are on-site laundry rooms and the day I arrived even a large van containing a mobile hair salon.

While it knows a great deal about all of us who use it, Google, as a corporate entity is not chatty, so the level of access I was granted was unusual. I spent two full days and interviewed employees from different departments. It was interesting to see the contrast between the lovely, spotless physical spaces inside and out — including labeled grapevines and a community garden — and to hear how much Google expects/demands of its staffers, typically hired after an intense and grueling interview process.

The single most compelling memory? It’s not in my story.

Sitting on one of those Japanese heated toilet seats — and seeing a plastic folder on the wall beside me, with a (copyrighted) one-sheet lesson in it, part of their program called Learning on the Loo. Yes, really.

The photos, which are fantastic, are by San Francisco based freelancer, and a friend, Peter DaSilva. I loved having the chance to watch him at work.

The photo editor was Jose R. Lopez — my husband.

Great story and lots of fun to report and write. I hope you enjoy it and spread the word!

Here’s a 54 minute video from Google of Meng talking about his book.

Oh, I Am A Weak-Willed Wretch

In beauty, behavior, education, religion, travel on July 29, 2011 at 11:31 am
thailand buddha wat phra keo

So, what’s it like to leave behind the everyday trappings of life?

Mixed bag.

I’ve been a bad girl in connecting to the Internet to blog, read Facebook and answer and send email. We have broken silence by whispering to one another. I have listened to music, using earbuds, on my laptop.

Technically, I should not be doing any of this. But I am not a practicing Buddhist, more here to support the devout faith of the sweetie. And, yes, I am sufficiently weak-willed that I cannot fill 6+ hours a day merely staring at the trees.

I’m learning.

I attend the teachings, of which there are two or three a day, beginning with chanting and meditation, and which last 60 to 90 minutes. It can get very esoteric, with endless examination of concepts like mind, clarity, self…It’s both stimulating and a little exhausting.

The lama, who’s also a friend of ours, is funny, down to earth and everything he says makes perfect sense in the “real world” beyond the stone walls that enclose us.

It is odd to be surrounded by 64 strangers, from teenagers to seniors, with whom we’re (blessedly) forbidden to speak. It’s such a relief to not have to talk or listen or react or remember. To drop all pretense of being social or friendly. But we’ve also been admonished to be even quieter, as some of us have been whispering to one another while outside away from others, or in our rooms.

It’s also interesting to be surrounded by people with little or no way to assert status: their schools, graduate degrees, job titles, neighborhood, clothing, jewelry, handbags, cars, shoes. What we see is what we get. What we see is all we know. What we “know” is only surface anyway, here and elsewhere.

We watch one another and wonder what their story is, with students here from Europe, Canada, South America: the beefy, the lame, the bald, the long-haired, the lithe.

It’s an elegant, self-imposed house arrest, our only allowed territory the halls, rooms and grounds. The highway is just at at the end of the driveway and our car sits right there, for once — yay! — undriven.

(I know others are breaking the rules by actually going off-campus, using cellphones, etc. I’m not the only one succumbing to temptation [she said defensively].)

So, here, we look inwards or outwards, sky-gazing.

Remove the usual distractions of kids and pets and work and commuting and movies and shopping  and ATM withdrawals and buying gas and groceries and paying bills or playing Angry Birds — and you suddenly find time to read, think, paint, draw, take photos, sleep and — of course, pray, listen to teachings and meditate.

It will be a challenge for all of us to re-create that sacred quiet space within the craziness of “normal” life. It’s also quite moving to share space and time with others on, for this week anyway, the same path of questioning and learning. Five students have left along the way. Without ever having exchanged a word, you notice their their silent absence immediately.

On Thursday, a new influx appeared, a spiritual shift change.

The physical space enclosing us all is lovely, a four-story former Catholic monastery now open to other faiths, and a frequent site for Buddhist retreats. It faces — what else? — West Point across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River.

You have to love the irony of prayers and chanting and meditation literally facing the academy training soldiers to kill and be killed. The hiking trail through the woods includes (!) Benedict Arnold’s escape route.

We eat vegetarian food, four choices at every meal, at long communal tables, sitting on wooden chairs. Everything is spotless, polished, cared for. There are vases of fresh flowers and bamboo from the gardens, so there is, everywhere, something beautiful to look at, touch or smell.

The garden has a huge lavender bed filled with bees, a wild garden with green peppers and sunflowers and gerbera. A huge bamboo grove looms over a bench where you can sit and read in the shade. I enjoyed an hour there watching a bad bunny eating anything he could find.

Such a calm and quiet place to escape the relentless chest-beating of ego assertion!

I’ll miss this as I plunge back into the elbow-in-the-eye world of professional journalism in New York.

But boy am I ready for a tuna melt with fries and a cold beer! (Or a steak and a martini.)

The Sounds Of A Silent Retreat

In beauty, culture, life, religion, travel on July 27, 2011 at 1:06 pm
National Register of Historic Places listings ...

The Hudson River, which we overlook...Image via Wikipedia

The humming of fans

Kids’ shouting and laughter from the nearby park

The gurgle/splash of tea/coffee filling a mug

A bullfrog at the pond

Cicadas

Crickets

The scrape of a chair against the floor

Gunfire — target practice across the river at West Point?

Rain

Wind in the trees

A lawnmower

The scrape of the greenhouse door against the slate doorstep

The thunk of a softball landing in my mitt (What is the sound of one glove snapping?)

The beep-beep-beep of a delivery truck

Someone tapping stone

The ribbit-ribbit-ribbit of frogs in the dark

An occasional airplane

The shushing of a riverside waterfall on the opposite bank

The flapping of flip-flops

The sweetie’s breathing in the  bed next to me

The rustle of foliage as a bad bunny eats the garden’s lettuce

The echoing horn of a freight train on the opposite shore

The commuter train thundering up and down the valley

The buzzing of motor boats on the Hudson River below

The whine of mosquitoes

Birdsong

Bees buzzing in the lavender beds

The pealing of the hand bell used to signal prayers, meditations, teachings and meals

The clinking of cutlery against china at mealtime

The whoosh of the dishwasher’s hose

The ringing of the gong to start meditation

The clicking of mala beads

Om Mane Padme Hung and other Buddhist chants

No Meat, Conversation Or Liquor — Will I Survive?

In behavior, blogging, culture, religion on July 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm
Padmasambhava, a picture I, John Hill, took in...

Padmasambhava...Image via Wikipedia

Well, my dears. Off today on a 10-day silent, vegetarian, Buddhist retreat about a 30-minute drive north of my home.

The idea was the sweetie’s, this year’s birthday present.

He’s been a devout Buddhist practicing Dzogchen since he spent six terrifying weeks in 1995 in Bosnia at Christmas, shooting photos for The New York Times.

His mini-altar in the hallway has a small Buddha wrapped in a prayer scarf. A laminated card tucked on the driver side of our ancient Subaru is that of Padmasambhava.

When we started dating, in March 2000, the difference in our faiths — I attend an Episcopal church, albeit not every week — seemed like a potential stumbling block as he is so much  more devout. But it’s not a competition.

And he’s always been really supportive of me, attending my church for more than a decade.

I’ve met and enjoy his lama, Surya Das, author of several books, with a new one out, “Buddha Standard Time.”

He and I even went to see “Mamma Mia” together a few years ago. Namaste on Broadway!

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

If I can get access to the Internet, as yet unknown, I’ll blog during that week. If I can’t, hang tight! I’ll be back here on my regular schedule, posting every other day, starting again on July 31.

Wish me luck!

Silence Now Rarer Than Ever

In behavior, Health on May 2, 2010 at 11:43 am
Le Silence, painted plaster sculpture by Augus...

Image via Wikipedia

As I type this, at 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning, I hear: my neighbor’s conversation (sigh), fully audible through our adjoining wall; traffic on the bridge a few miles away, birds in the treetops mere feet from our windows, the fridge humming, a few jets high overhead.

I live 25 miles north of New York City and revel in our (relative) silence. It is increasingly rare, as anyone living in or near a city knows. From a recent op-ed in The New York Times:

The scale of our noise problem isn’t in doubt. In recent years rigorous studies on the health consequences of noise have indicated that noise elevates heart rate, blood pressure, vasoconstriction and stress hormone levels, and increases risk for heart attacks. These reports prove that even when we’ve become mentally habituated to noise, the damage it does to our physiologies continues unchecked.

Studies done on sleeping subjects show that signs of stress surge in response to noise like air traffic even when people don’t wake. Moderate noise from white-noise machines, air-conditioners and background television, for example, can still undermine children’s language acquisition. Warnings about playing Walkmans and iPods too loudly have been around for years, but some experts now believe that even at reasonable volumes a direct sound-feed into the ears for hours on end may degrade our hearing.

Yet by focusing on the issue exclusively from a negative perspective, in a world awash with things to worry about, we may just be adding to the public’s sense of self-compassion fatigue. Rather than rant about noise, we need to create a passionate case for silence.

There are few things more healing — to some, unnerving — than deep, rich, unbroken silence. Journalists learn early to use it professionally: when conducting an interview, leave a gap in the conversation and many people, unaccustomed to it, will keep on talking to fill it, often with things they might not otherwise have said.

Those who meditate in Buddhism talk about taming, or trying to, their “monkey mind” — the thoughts and fears that too often bound around our brains like a crazed chimpanzee. For some people, the notion of sitting totally still and calm, eschewing every possible distraction and interruption, is terrifying. You’re….not needed! Not connected! Not productive.

Thank God.

We spent a week this January on an isolated and large (28,000 acres) ranch in New Mexico. The silence was so rich it echoed in my ears. I could hear myself digesting. I felt profoundly restored in a way almost nothing else had ever produced.

Here’s an interesting blog post, from Ireland, on seven benefits of silence.

What is the quietest place you have ever been? What effect did it — or does it now — have on you?

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